In the spring of 2004, a retired teacher urged parents attending a Tokyo high school graduation ceremony to remain seated during the playing of the national anthem. Last week, the Tokyo District Court fined him 200,000 yen for “obstructing” the ceremony.

In the background is the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education’s October 2003 order requiring schools to display the Hinomaru national flag and teachers to stand up and sing the Kimigayo national anthem at graduation and enrollment ceremonies. Another order requires teachers to “properly guide” students during school ceremonies. The court ruling will have the effect of intimidating teachers opposed to or reluctant to follow the orders. As such, it could undermine the right to freedom of thought and conscience and the freedom of speech and expression, as guaranteed by the Constitution.

The Hinomaru flag and the Kimigayo anthem are an ideological issue because many people associate them with modern Imperial Japan’s militarism and aggression. A law enacted in 1999 declares that the Hinomaru and Kimigayo are the national flag and anthem. During the Diet debate, the government explained that the duty of singing the anthem and paying respect to the flag would not be imposed on citizens. But it said that teachers cannot try to refuse to guide students by citing the right to freedom of thought and conscience.

In interpreting Kimigayo, the government said the words “Your Reign” means the Japanese state, of which the Emperor is the symbol as stipulated by the Constitution. Some people think that this interpretation is too state-centered and may refuse to sing the anthem. This attitude stems from a long-standing view that the ancient poem from which the anthem was derived merely expressed a wish for a long life to any person to whom the poem was sung.

The board’s orders are based on the education ministry’s official guideline for school teaching, which says that teachers must cultivate respect for the national flag and anthem in students. An official commentary on the guideline says that teachers must guide students so that they readily sing the national anthem at graduation and enrollment ceremonies. The board has punished nearly 350 public-school teachers for failing to obey these orders.

On March 11, 2004, a retired teacher, Mr. Katsuhisa Fujita was invited to the graduation ceremony at Itabashi High School, where he had taught social studies for seven years. According to the ruling, Mr. Fujita handed out copies of a magazine article on the Kimigayo and Hinomaru issue to seated parents and urged them in a loud voice to remain seated during the anthem playing, saying that the graduation ceremony was “abnormal because teachers are punished if they refuse to stand up and sing the national anthem.”

When the vice principal tried to restrain him, Mr. Fujita shouted “Don’t touch me.” When the principal (not the vice principle) tried to restrain him and demanded that he leave, he roared in anger and caused a tumult. Mr. Fujita left about 10 minutes before the start of the ceremony.

The court found Mr. Fujita guilty of obstruction of official duties because his action caused the principal and other school officials to deal with him for slightly more than six minutes and delayed the ceremony’s start by two minutes. But according to the Tokyo Shimbun, parents who were at the ceremony said that Mr. Fujita spoke quietly and calmly to them, and that the exchange of words between him and the vice principal did not cause a commotion in any sense.

The court determined that Mr. Fujita did not intend to obstruct the ceremony by his action and that the event went almost without any hindrance. Thus it chose to punish him with a 200,000 yen fine. What is difficult to understand is why prosecutors demanded that Mr. Fujita be imprisoned for eight months.

According to Mr. Fujita’s lawyers and supporters, an extraordinary incident did take place at the ceremony, but not on Mr. Fujita’s part. In a loud voice a metropolitan assembly member instructed students to stand while the anthem played. Most, however, remained seated. The assembly member, the principal and the vice principal then took photos of the scene with their cell-phone cameras and board officials made audio recordings. Later the assembly member demanded in an assembly session that the board find the “culprit” responsible for the students’ behavior, and the board subsequently filed a report of damage with law-enforcement authorities.

By forcing teachers to suppress their historical awareness and belief systems, the metropolitan board of education’s policy may result in more “orderly” school ceremonies. But order instilled through repression can only bring harm to Japan’s educational system.

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